Recent books: “194x” by Andrew Shanken and “Militant Modernism” by Owen Hatherley

Two recent reads on Modernism:

194x by Andrew M. Shanken (2009, U. of Minnesota Press)

Andrew is a assistant professor of Architectural History at the University of California, Berkeley. I was familiar with the topic of this book prior to reading it because I studied with him while I was a graduate student there a few years ago.

Andrew Shanken looks at the “culture of anticipation” that arose during World War II in the United States as architects planned for the year “194x”, the year the war would end and the austerity caused first by the Great Depression and then by the war would finally end. He tracks the steady rise of interest in planning, as architects envision themselves as controlling a complete redesign of society in the postwar era.

Shanken spends a lot of time in the book looking at how many of the well-known  architects of 1940s worked with prominent companies to promote their ideas and in turn tie them to consumer culture. While the industry magazines of the day did deal with the issue of “planning’, some of the most prominent publications of the day were actually produced in pamphlet format by private companies like Zurn Plumbing or Revere Copper and Brass. In pamphlets that have seemingly little to do with their products, architects advocated for every citizen to take part in civic planning (though there are several funny examples of the “planning” concepts being used to sell mundane products like toilets or flooring).

As the end of the war drew close, it became clear to many large companies that an expanded version of the status quo would suit their needs better than a wholesale change of both the means of housing production and the role of the government in society. As Congress turned away from planning and Keynesian economics fell out of favor with a turn towards classical capitalism, modern architecture was singled out. As Shanken points out in the afterward, the battle between collectivism and laissez-faire capitalism has been a steady feature in American society with each generation seeing it play out differently. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, an individualistic worldview and lassez-faire economics combined with massive Defense Deparment infrastructure investments in road-building would lead to the auto dependent suburbs that quickly surrounded every American city. Large-scale regional planning of the type imagined during the War was generally not implemented.

The planning that did occur was often the most destructive sort. Slum clearance, a popular topic in planing literature of the 1940s, did happen to large areas of many cities during the 1950s and 1960s. Horribly disruptive and deliberately targeting the poor and minority groups, cities often bulldozed acres of housing with no clear plan as to what would replace it. I would love to have another chapter in this book that traces the lineage of the planning movements of the World War II era into the 1950s to see how the Utopian visions of that era ended up being very selectively deployed.

I think that Shanken is most successful in setting the tone for the era of the 1940s. Most architects hadn’t seen a significant amount of work in 15 years as the war drew to a close. There was going to be a housing crisis when soldiers returned from abroad contributing to a predicted postwar employment crises. This book does an excellent job of explaining how this scenario provided the perfect opportunity for architects to combine European modernism with American capitalism and then in turn sell it to the general public with Utopian visions of a drastically changed world. If you are interested understanding mid 20th Century American politics and consumer culture, this book is a must-read.

Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley (2009, O Books)

Owen Hatherley, writer of the blog Sit Down Man, You’re A Bloody Tragedy,  has written a short book that asks on the first page “can we, should we, try to excavate utopia?” While this book most certainly deals with architecture, it also delves into modernity in film, sexual politics and theater. The book is divided into four sections, each of which can be read independently.

The common thread through the four sections is desire to return to a modernism of everyday life, rather than the timid “Ikea modernism” we are left with today (Hatherley states that “Modernism has resurged, but in much the same way a Labour government is no longer a Labour government).

The first section on architecture is the strongest, but I may just be predisposed to feel that way because of my personal affinity for brutalism. The chapter looks at the development of brutalism as it was deployed in British housing estates during the 1960s, particularly by the Smithsons. He makes the point that the Smithsons were making a critique of ‘classical’ modernism, something that I feel is often forgotten – particularly when brutalism is discussed in the United States. “It is an attack on the purism and anti-urbanism of their predecessors,” replacing the picturesque and the spaced towers of miesian modernism with a dense network of internal streets. Most of all, it would “house the poor, be part of the new welfare state, it would be glamorous.”

Moving in to the second section, on Soviet Modernism of the 1920s, is a look at a chapter of architectural history that has been to a large degree ignored. I found the most interesting part of this chapter to be the proposals for disurbanism put forward by sociologist Moisei Ginzburg in 1930. Opposing the idea of collective planned spaces under socialism, he advocated a form of development where vast networks of people live in transportable pods and connected by transportation networks. Hatherley points out the fact that this is the extreme of both collectivism and individualism, and that it is a prophecy of what Los Angeles was to become in the second half of the 20th Century (but far more extreme than what Los Angeles actually became). The paper architecture (and some actual realized architecture) of this era is something I probably need to become more familiar with to fully appreciate this section.

The following two sections, reading modern film and it’s relation to sexual politics and theatre, weren’t as strong as the architectural chapters. They do help support the argument for modernism as a total break from the past- a new way of thinking and living that offered “possible outlines of a world after capitalism.” Perhaps we don’t literally need the exact type of socialist utopias envisioned in the first half of the last century, but it is quite sad that we don’t bother dreaming of a world that could be different from our own- even as we watch the foundations of our system collapse around us.

This is a very thought-provoking book, and a bit hard to find in the US at present.

Across an Inland Sea: reading a book that starts in the place you know best

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River
Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Update: I am deeply saddened to have discovered that Nicholas Howe died of Leukemia nearly two years ago. I guess I won’t be meeting him any time soon after all.

I just finished a great book that I stumbled upon by accident while browsing at William Stout Architectural Books last weekend. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Nicholas Howe and is titled Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin.

It caught my eye at the bookstore because it has a photo of one of the Buffalo grain elevators on the cover with the frozen expanse of Lake Erie stretching in every direction. It’s a sight I am very familiar with as it is next to the highway that goes from Hamburg (where I grew up) to downtown Buffalo, and I’ve passed it more times than I can count. For many years, there was a huge blue-green rusting cruise ship docked next to it.

The book is about how the places we live change us and make us who we are, and what it means to write from various locales. The book starts with a description of Buffalo, where the author grew up and where his family had lived for several generations to Paris, Oklahoma, Berlin and finally Columbus, Ohio. I found the book particularly fascinating because not only did I grow up in Buffalo, but I have lived in Columbus and I’ve ended up in the Bay Area- where Howe moved shortly after the book was finished to teach at Berkeley.

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze
Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

I don’t think it was until I reached graduate school that I realized how fundamentally different peoples’ sense of the world could be, even amongst people who grew up in the same country speaking the same language. There were people in my classes who didn’t realize that there were parts of the country like Detroit (or Buffalo) where full grown trees had pushed their way up through buildings and railroad tracks vacated decades earlier. Seeing this gives you a world view where you realize how transitory the world around you can be, despite its seemingly permanent materiality. It is definitely at the core of how I view architecture and the urban realm.

Now I have to bump Berlin and Paris up my list of places I want to visit.